You’ve Found Yourself Assigned to the Hazardous Materials Response Unit

So, you’ve found yourself assigned to the Hazardous Materials response unit.


Now what? As you prepare for your new role, you’ll hear differing viewpoints on the subject of hazardous materials. There will be many “always” and “never” statements, strong opinions on things you “don’t need to know,” and in-depth, even forceful, lessons in the way things “have always been done.”


Approach these broad generalizations with caution, as they suggest simple answers to complex problems. Nothing in HazMat happens “always” or “never.” Learn everything you can. You may not use all you learn, but it’s certainly better to know something and not need it than to need something and not know it. The way things “have always been done” is fine as long as you understand why things were done that way in the first place, but you must also assure yourself that those old ways are still the best ways through research and training.

Now you must navigate numerous online training resources and a constantly shifting slate of one to 10-day classes. Your HazMat response unit features compartment upon compartment of highly sophisticated technology with which you must familiarize yourself. On top of that you’re expected to maintain firefighting/medic proficiency. It sounds like a lot, and the mountain of information confronting you can be overwhelming at first. I know, I’ve muddled through it for the last six years, and I have some tips for you, New Guy. Hopefully this advice will alleviate some stress and help make your first five years smoother than mine.

It seems only fitting to begin with the most important and daunting task facing you: training for Hazardous Materials response. A segment of Hazardous Materials responders take Chemistry of Hazardous Materials and Hazardous Materials Technician classes and decide they have completed their training. For their career.

Please don’t allow yourself to join this group; its membership is high enough without you. Hazardous Materials Technician is a good start, but you must remember it is just that, a start.

You can find training for any imaginable facet of HazMat response. You will have the opportunity to attend some week-long schools, after which you receive a piece of paper dubbing you a “SPECIALIST” in some specific realm of HazMat response. This will make you feel pretty accomplished, and you should definitely consider attending these schools. But please don’t treat this piece of paper as validation that your training has concluded and you have nothing else to learn. Hazardous materials response is a vast, ever-evolving discipline and there will always be more to learn.

For information about these week-long schools, check the National Domestic Preparedness Consortium website, at On the homepage, scroll through the “Training Partners” to find all available schools and their specialties. Most are even FEMA-funded, meaning they are tuition-free for first responders.

Attend as many of these focused schools as you can, but you should supplement them with classes.  Classes are a little more difficult to find, but good resources are available. Check NCTERMS, at, for a listing of all the classes available in North Carolina. You will have to fill out a registration form and potentially sit on a waiting list, but I have never been denied any training found on the site.

If nothing strikes your fancy on NCTERMS, consider heading to to check their training calendar. This transportation consortium focuses mostly on HazMat response for railroad incidents. It is a nationwide network so be sure to know the location of the class before signing up.

Some classes you must attend in person, but the websites listed above offer many four to eight hour online training modules. Regardless of what mode of training is right for you, you must train. Even if you consider yourself an “expert” on a subject, take classes on it. Go into each class with an open mind and determined to learn. No one person can know it all, and many classes will show you just how little you actually know. Don’t be discouraged, be motivated.

As you go through training, you will be bombarded by lists of chemical and physical properties for a host of different substances. You’ll be tempted to memorize as many of these properties as possible, probably driven by the awe you feel when someone regurgitates those facts in conversation. Please don’t indulge that temptation. Retaining some facts is an inevitable by-product of training, and it is fun to casually repeat them. But be aware this is the HazMat equivalent of a parlor trick. It delights and amazes your friends and colleagues but serves no real purpose. In a HazMat response, no technician should rely on memory as research. You are a technician, not a chemist; all your information must be produced on scene from published, vetted reference materials.

While we are on the subject of response, please don’t let all the training you attend go to your head.  You are a technician, not a scientist; all of the testing you will do on scene will be based on science, no field-test is actually science. Science produces repeatable, verifiable results; HazMat responders trade in degrees of probability. Remember the difference when discussing test results on scene. Specificity is important, but speaking in absolutes would misrepresent the information at your disposal. Always remember, subject matter experts and real scientists are a phone call away; don’t be too proud to make that call. Know how to contact all available resources before you arrive on scene.

I mentioned that HazMat units carry some very sophisticated technology. You should know how everything on your unit works. Understand the difference between knowing that your equipment works and knowing how it works. Knowing that it works is a matter of responsibility; knowing how it works is a matter of pride. What this means is in addition to all the schools, classes, and hands-on training, read extracurricular materials like owner’s manuals, spec sheets, technical notes and industry white papers.  Don’t settle for knowledge; your goal should be understanding.

So, when you’re not taking classes, training, or reading you’ll have time to talk to other team members. You’ll be regaled with tales of real, hands-on HazMat exploits by people who lived them. Listen to these people. They have actually done the work you are training for so diligently. Training is great, but nothing beats experience. Sit down, listen, and learn.

Be smart, though. You listen and you learn but after the songs have been sung, fact check what you just heard. As I’ve said, HazMat response is a shifting landscape; and what was acceptable 30 years ago may not be acceptable now. Everyone you work with is human, and humans are wrong sometimes. Don’t assume everything you hear is a verified fact, and don’t ever do something just because you heard that’s how it’s done. Do your research. Find your own way. Know why you do things the way you are doing them. Thinking is a job requirement.

So, welcome to the team, New Guy. It’s a daunting responsibility, but HazMat response is a great job. I wouldn’t choose anything else. Remember, training is available but no one will sign you up for it. The motivation to get better must come from you. Hope I see you out there.

Ricky Hesson is an engineer with the Asheville Fire Department in North Carolina, which he joined in 2013. He has spent most of his career on Engine 11, the city’s HazMat Response Unit, which also serves as one of North Carolina’s Regional HazMat Response teams. He is a Highway Emergency Response Specialist, a MERRTT Technician, and has attended dozens of other Hazmat courses. Although these certifications do not validate him. He’s still a “New Guy.” If you need anything else, please let me know.

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